Classical Notes

‘One Light’ ventures beyond holiday tradition

Juventas associate conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya Juventas associate conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. (Keith Collier, Cayuga Strategies)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2009

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The holiday season is virtually synonymous with tradition, and that goes for music as much as anything else. As December rolls around, most of us reach for old standbys to create our soundtrack - “Messiah,’’ familiar carols, Bing and Frank singing “White Christmas.’’ It just seems like a time for the established and the comfortable.

But two local new-music groups are trying to inject something fresh into what can be a rather stale bill of fare. Juventas, an instrumental chamber group, and Lorelei Ensemble, a 10-voice women’s chorus, are teaming up for “One Light,’’ a program of seven new works inspired by the holiday season. All the music on Saturday and Sunday’s concerts was written by composers age 35 or younger.

“This is a step for both ensembles, to do a holiday concert,’’ says Beth Willer, founder and director of Lorelei. “It’s something that isn’t necessarily happening in Boston.’’

The concert was the brainchild of Juventas’s executive director/composer Erin Huelskamp, who says she wanted to create a sense of community in the same way more familiar events do. “Around the holidays, everyone wants to do things as a group and as a family,’’ she says. “So I came up with the idea of a holiday concert because we hear the same old carols every year. And I thought, we have all these composers who are young at our disposal - why don’t we use them to capture something that everybody already feels?’’

The two groups began to assemble a list of composers, all seven of whom have written for one or another of the groups in the past. “We were asking people that we thought wouldn’t necessarily just write for Christmas, that would be open to using texts from other traditions,’’ says Willer. “Or no tradition, just approaching a text from another perspective.’’

Michael Sakir, Juventas’s music director, echoes that theme, explaining that they wanted the composers to be as free as possible in their approach, both textually and musically. “I think that Juventas really likes to break down walls and push boundaries when it comes to what new music is today,’’ he says. “So a lot of the pieces on the program . . . either use familiar, traditional stories, or they completely break that [approach] down.’’

The works on Sunday’s program cover a wide thematic terrain. Christmas and Hanukkah are recognized; so is the winter solstice in Oliver Caplan’s “Every Iridescent Chip of Ice.’’ Rudolf Rojahn’s “Christ/Anti-Christ,’’ which Sakir calls “probably the most radical thing on the program,’’ juxtaposes texts from the Gospel of Matthew with selections from Nietzsche’s “The Antichrist.’’ Rojahn breaks the words down into single syllables, almost to the point where they can no longer be recognized. “It reflects his personal conflict with religion,’’ says Sakir.

One of the most intriguing pieces comes from Huelskamp, who wrote “Surely Happiness Is Reflective’’ for the concert. As it opens, five of the eight singers walk on stage speaking extemporaneously about their own lives and the burdens that the holidays impose. One of the composer’s instructions reads: “List the household chores you must accomplish in order to prepare your home for the family Christmas meal. Be sure to include cleaning details as well as recipes and ingredient needs.’’

Gradually, the speaking is replaced by singing, and the music goes on to refer to chant and to a variety of different carols. It’s intended to capture Huelskamp’s own memories of being at church on Christmas Eve.

“It’s really important to draw the audience into the world I hear in my head,’’ she explains. “I wanted to capture the drama and the atmosphere that we all live in. That opening scene is just about the way these holidays kind of draw us toward those happy places, despite the fact that we have this day-to-day turmoil.’’

That clash between the exalted and the ordinary, between worlds sacred and secular, may resonate at least as well with listeners than many of the time-honored selections to which they usually turn. Willer says that in the midst of conducting a holiday concert with another group, found herself thinking about “bills, and oh my God, it’s snowing and I have to drive somewhere tomorrow.

“So even someone who doesn’t have any spiritual beliefs - at this time of year, they can definitely identify with that piece. And if they don’t, I want to know how they do it,’’ she laughs.

Saturday at St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain, and Sunday at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel;,

On a more traditional note
If you want to stick to conventional repertoire for your holiday concertgoing, stop by one of Boston Baroque’s annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah,’’ which are tonight and tomorrow at Jordan Hall. Martin Pearlman has been conducting the period instrument orchestra and chorus in the piece every December since 1981. This year’s soloists include the outstanding soprano Amanda Forsythe.

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